Decca declined to sign The Beatles
IT WAS hailed as a momentous find – a 4,500-year-old stone circle that had somehow remained undiscovered in the countryside of Aberdeenshire in Scotland. Archaeologists were convinced that, although apparently unusual for its kind, it was an ancient Neolithic monument that might open up a whole new understanding of prehistoric buildings. Except that they were wrong. This week it emerged that the “landmark”, in the parish of Leochel-Cushnie, was in fact closer to the era of the Iron Lady than the Bronze Age. A former owner of the farm where it was located emerged to admit that he had actually built it in the 1990s.
Red-faced officials were left to mutter that this particular type of site was “notoriously difficult to date”.
For the rest of us ordinary folk it was just the latest satisfying confirmation that the so-called experts don’t always get it right. In fact, they have a long history of cock-ups.
Take, for instance, the acclaimed scientist Professor Dionysius Lardner who said, in 1830, just a few years after the invention of steam locomotives: “Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.”
Within a century Britain’s rail network would cover 30,000 miles and today there are trains that can travel at more than 250mph.
Then there was the president of the Michigan Savings Bank in America who was, one assumes, a shrewd investor.
In 1903 he confidently told Horace Rackham, then lawyer to Henry Ford who would became famous for his best-selling Model T car, not to invest in the motor company. He declared: “The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only novelty, a fad.”
There was also the boss of the film giant Twentieth Century Fox, Darryl Zanuck, who in 1946 predicted the swift death of television.
His verdict was: “People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”
Toddler artist Freddie Linsky fooled the art world with his paintings
Albert Einstein may have been a genius, but early in his career the scientist told us nuclear energy would never be obtainable.
Later on, record company Decca declined to sign The Beatles, assuring us that guitar music was “on the way out”.
And as late as 1995 Robert Metcalfe, who pioneered Ethernet technology, hadn’t learned the lesson. He warned that the web would “catastrophically collapse” within a year.
His dire prophecy echoed Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, who in 1943 had said he reckoned there would only ever be a market for five computers.
More recently the Millennium Bug was supposed to create havoc when the clocks in computers clicked over to the year 2000. The prophesied apocalypse turned out to be a damp squib.
In the early 1990s, political scientist Francis Fukuyama had declared an “end to history” itself. He enthused that the end of the Cold War could mark the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.
That was before 9/11, the Iraq War and the rise of leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump (who pollsters never thought would be elected) both looked to shake the world order up a little.
Many of those who profess expert knowledge have been left with egg on their faces, leaving the rest of us enjoying a wry smile, and archaeologists are as susceptible as any.
There was the infamous case of the Piltdown Man, pounced upon by scientists desperate to prove the “missing link” between apes and humans.
In 1912, amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson announced that he had found what seemed to be the remains of a skull belonging to an early human ancestor.
It was reconstructed and formally presented to The Geological Society, even being given a Latin name Eoanthropus dawsoni. It would be decades before it was exposed as a fake – the jaw was from an orangutan.
More chagrin was in line for historian Hugh Trevor-Roper whose reputation was left in tatters after pronouncing the Hitler Diaries genuine in the early 1980s. The journals, purportedly penned by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, had apparently turned up out of the blue. They soon turned out to have been forged by a German illustrator Konrad Kujau who went to prison for his efforts.
The Piltdown Man ended up a let-down
THE ART world is particularly prone to embarrassing mistakes. In 2007 the abstract paintings of toddler Freddie Linsky, made using tomato ketchup, had many fooled. When his mother claimed her son was an art critic and gave his works overblown captions, galleries clamoured to show his works, while art collectors queued up to buy them.
Likewise, an expert on the US version of Antiques Roadshow valued a jug at £35,000 before, oops, it turned out to have been made by a humble high school student and was actually worth 10 times less. And then, of course, there’s Brexit. Whether you want to stay in the EU or leave it, it’s now difficult not to agree that forecasts that we could end up in a recession after the referendum in 2016 were wide of the mark.
In fact, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney has had to admit that the UK economy has since done better than expected and that the warnings before the vote were too gloomy.
Of course, the Canadian once described as “the outstanding central banker of his generation” is not the only one to get things wrong. Few economists saw the 2008 financial crash coming. In fact, their failure to predict it has been called the profession’s “Michael Fish moment”, by Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist.
Fish was the TV meteorologist who assured us that there was no hurricane on the way to the UK just hours before the Great Storm of 1987 which caused widespread devastation.
It all adds up to a feeling that we should always be wary of people who say they know better than the rest of us.
It turns out that the ancient Scottish stone circle in Leochel-Cushnie was built in the 1990s
Expertise is important, of course. You wouldn’t want surgeons operating on you who didn’t have the right level of training in their field, and we should always listen to educated opinion when it comes to making decisions about our future.
Yet we’d do well to treat those who live in their ivory towers with a healthy degree of scepticism.
Ironically, it turns out there’s some scientific backing to this concern.
According to researchers at University College Dublin experts are actually more likely to make mistakes about their specialist subject because knowing a lot about their topic sometimes actually encourages “false memories”. Meanwhile, Dr John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine, found that two thirds of published scientific studies were flawed as a result of bias and random error.
In his book Wrong, author David Freedman describes what he calls a Wizard Of Oz effect – the idea that from a young age we’re always taught that someone else knows best.
And he points out that we often blindly follow experts, even though they are mistaken. He agrees that while it’s important to take what experts say into account, we shouldn’t simply assume they’re right.
Challenge everything, then make up your own mind.